WEGDAHL – The last time the tiny, Minnesota River community of Wegdahl could be called a destination dates to the days when a dance hall and speakeasy known as Skunk Hollow sold bootleg whiskey and there were stories galore about fights and shady card games.
The crowd that showed up Thursday found a much different environment. Chippewa County hosted an open house to introduce people to the park it has developed on this site along the Minnesota River roughly halfway between Montevideo and Granite Falls.
The 30-acre park comes complete with two camper cabins, two RV camping sites with water and electricity, rustic tent camping, two picnic shelters, playground equipment, wooded trails, a boat access with a dock, vault toilets, river frontage for fishing and lots of open space for events or outdoor activities.
“It’s come a long way,’’ said Jim Dahlvang, chair of the Chippewa County board of commissioners when reminded how this very site looked only two decades ago.
The county acquired the property following the 1997 flood and with it, a real mess. “Tons of garbage. We hauled several dozen roll-off dumpsters out of here,’’ said Scott Williams, land and resource director for the county.
Clean Up our River Environment, the Montevideo Scouts, and the National Guard all teamed up at one point to remove the trash that had been dumped and had accumulated here.
The county used Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to remove houses that had been ruined by the flood in the park area. There were junk houses and another house where its residents were suspected of making drugs.
Today, Williams said the park is a popular destination for people who love to fish on the Minnesota River, and by others who enjoy its quiet, scenic setting. He spots lots of visitors who come to walk the trails with their dogs, or enjoy a picnic or lunch break here. Some come by bicycle, following a six-mile paved trail from Montevideo.
Fishing is the biggest draw, he said, adding that some of the visitors come regularly from as far as Iowa and South Dakota.
“The number of catfish in this part of the river is probably more than you will find anywhere,’’ said Del Wehrspann, an avid angler who makes his home a short distance upstream of this site.
Wehrspann is among those who were early to realize the recreational value of this location. He had moved from Iowa to the Minnesota River Valley in 1968 and started enjoying the best fishing he’d ever experienced. “I couldn’t believe the resource that was here, just fishing from the bridges,’’ he said.
Back in 1968, bridges provided virtually the only public access to the river in this area. Huon Newburg, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, worked with citizens in the area to eventually develop four public access sites on the river in a stretch from north of Montevideo to Granite Falls, including the site at Wegdahl, explained Wehrspann.
The Wegdahl access- a joint effort by the DNR and Chippewa County- now sports the only dock on the Minnesota River in a very long stretch. Anglers here come mainly for catfish, but smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye and crappie are also among the game fish to be caught. Tony Stindt, Minnesota River specialist with the DNR, brought a tank holding 15-different species of fish he netted in the river to show at the open house. It attracted lots of attention, with many people telling him they were surprised at all the fish to be found in the river.
The park at Wegdahl is surprising people too, as many are still discovering what’s here. Williams said one of the reasons for the open house was to better market the park to area residents who haven’t visited it yet.
This park was nearly two decades in the making, and took shape in small steps through those years. An informal, outdoor group in Montevideo, the Bushwackers, and many other area residents and groups, such as the Boy Scouts, encouraged and supported the development. The county board of commissioners had rejected a $162,000 grant to develop the park in 2005, but the call by citizens to develop a park here did not stop.
The county set aside its own funds and carried out the parks’ development as it could, according to Williams. There was help from citizens and organizations, too. The Knights of Columbus at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church donated $16,000 towards a picnic shelter.
The county added the camper cabins in 2014. They’re on wheels and can be removed if flood waters return some spring. The county sank a well in the park last year and now has hydrants in the park, including one for washing boats near the river access.
Bill Pauling, a Montevideo business owner, bicycling enthusiast, and member of the Chippewa County park board, said it’s the bicycle trail that got him interested in seeing the park developed. He’d like to see that trail extended to Granite Falls.
“My vision is someday to get it to Granite Falls and then connect the two trails like the transcontinental railroad,’’ said Pauling. “Connect two river communities to work together.’’